New abuse probe begun

Army captain, frustrated with military's response, turned to activist group, Senate panel


September 26, 2005|By Richard A. Serrano | Richard A. Serrano,Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- When Army Capt. Ian Fishback told his company and battalion commanders that soldiers were abusing Iraqi prisoners in violation of the Geneva Conventions, he says they told him those rules are easily skirted.

When he wrote a memo complaining that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld was wrong in telling Congress the Army follows the Geneva dictates, his lieutenant colonel responded only: "I am aware of Fishback's concerns."

And when Fishback found himself in the same room as Secretary of the Army Francis J. Harvey at Fort Benning, Ga., this year, he again complained about prisoner abuse. He said Harvey told him that "corrective action was already taken."

It seemed to the decorated young West Point graduate, the son of a Vietnam War veteran from Michigan's Upper Peninsula, whose wife is serving with the Army in Iraq, that the military had shut him out at every turn.

In a lengthy chronology obtained Saturday by the Los Angeles Times, recounting what he saw in Iraq and his numerous efforts to get the Army's attention, Fishback wrote that "Harvey is wrong." He wrote that Army guidance was "too vague for officers to enforce American values." He concluded that violations of the Geneva Conventions were "systematic, and the Army is misleading America."

This summer, after weighing the possible effects on his career, he telephoned the advocacy group Human Rights Watch. He later met with aides on the Senate Armed Services Committee. On Friday, he authorized them to make public his allegations, along with those of two sergeants, of widespread prisoner abuse they witnessed when they served in Iraq in 2003 and 2004 as members of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division.

Within hours, the Army announced it had opened a criminal felony investigation.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and former prisoner of war, said yesterday that the continuing allegations of abuse are hurting the nation's image abroad. "We've got to have it stopped," he said on ABC's This Week.

The review is the first major investigation by the military of claims of widespread prisoner abuse outside the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, and the first time such a review has targeted regular Army soldiers rather than the National Guard troops and reservists in the Abu Ghraib case.

But for Fishback, whom friends describe as a deeply religious Christian and patriot who prays before each meal and can quote from the Constitution, his ordeal may be just beginning.

Army officials have temporarily furloughed him from Special Operations training school at Fort Bragg, N.C., to make him available to the Criminal Investigation Command as it sorts through his allegations. And sources said investigators are pressing him to identify the two sergeants who have backed up his accusations - something he does not want to do for the sake of all their careers.

A former soldier close to Fishback, who asked not to be identified out of respect for Fishback's decision not to talk to the news media, said Fishback "really doesn't care what happens to him. He wants to stay in the Army. But he also says, `This is bigger than me. I've got to do the right thing here.'"

Fishback maintains that he witnessed detainees being stripped, deprived of sleep and exposed to the elements, all at the behest of Army intelligence officers who wanted prisoners "softened up" for interrogation.

To back up his claims, two unnamed sergeants came forward too, telling Human Rights Watch they saw soldiers break a prisoner's leg, kick and punch others, and force others to hold large water jugs for long peperiods or stack themselves into human pyramids.

They said the practice involved numerous soldiers and continued over six months, from fall 2003 to spring 2004 in the vicinity of Fallujah, a hotbed of opposition to U.S. troops.

Human Rights Watch officials said that one of the sergeants has left the military and that the other was reassigned. One complained that he had never been trained in handling prisoners.

Human Rights Watch said it also has spoken with a third sergeant and two Army physician's assistants who can back up the claims of brutality. But they said those people have not given permission to release their stories.

For now, Fishback has been instructed to stay at Fort Bragg, where he must obtain a pass for any trips more than 50 miles off the base.

When he came to Washington to meet with the committee two weeks ago, he came with a pass. But according to Human Rights Watch, the Army learned of that session and denied him a request for another pass when he wanted to return to Washington.

The Army would not discuss those matters. But Paul Boyce, an Army spokesman, said, "The Army does not tolerate detainee abuse" and has conducted more than 400 investigations and more than 2,800 interviews into possible abuse since Sept. 11, 2001. He said 230 members of the Army have been punished.

Central to Fishback's reasoning in pursuing the abuse matter is the Cadet Honor Code, which says, "A cadet shall not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do."

In his personal chronology, he wrote, "Bottom line: I am concerned that the Army is deliberately misleading the American people about detainee treatment within our custody."

Richard A. Serrano writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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